Hands-on history - where you get to touch, feel, see, or even smell history instead of simply reading about it in a book - is increasingly popular among the general public, educators, and museum curators. 

To cite one recent example, the Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse in Cheshire, North-West England, has purchased more than 100 Viking and Saxon objects, including helmets, swords, spears, musical instruments, and jewelry.

To find out how the objects were acquired and why an experiential approach is so effective, Jonathan Bennett spoke to Kate Harland, the museums and heritage manager at West Cheshire Museums, the umbrella organization that oversees Weaver Hall.

The Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse in Northwich, Cheshire. Photo: Marbury / Shutterstock

Perfect timing

The Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse narrate the social and industrial history of West Cheshire through a range of exhibitions. The museum is open to the general public Tuesdays through Sundays and also runs special classes for schoolchildren.

"We have been delivering Vikings and Saxon's sessions to primary school pupils for many years," says Kate. "This is a particular field of expertise for one of our education staff, Colin Mann, who has been lending his personal collection of objects to use with schools."

Unwilling to impose too much on Colin's kindness for too long, Kate was interested in acquiring the items for the museum. "So when the Friends of Weaver Hall offered to make a contribution to the museum, this seemed a perfect opportunity."

Living history in action

The acquisition has proved a big hit with local schoolchildren. 

"The session deliverer, who is in costume, invites the children into their homestead and shows them around the objects," says Kate. "The children can handle the items, which gives them a deeper understanding of how they would have been used."

In addition to the thrill of holding weaponry such as swords, shields, and helmets, the children also have the chance to examine the home life of the Vikings, with drinking vessels, bowls, and jewelry alongside various cooking items and hunting equipment.

"This is a unique experience for pupils, who can make clear references between objects used by Vikings and Saxons and more modern equivalents," Kate adds, who sees this kind of session as an integral part of the learning process.

Engaging through experience

"West Cheshire Museums bases all its learning programs on experiential learning," she explains. 

"The multi-sensory experience engages those children who sometimes struggle with less interactive learning. When developing sessions, we always try to involve all the senses, as this ensures we are offering learning opportunities to pupils with different learning needs."
 
The approach at Weaver Hall and commitment to providing engaging and highly memorable experiences is typical of a new generation of museums and leaders in the sector. 

The hands-on approach is also reminiscent of the various Viking reenactment groups and festivals throughout Europe and beyond, not to mention pioneering museums such as the Jorvik Viking Museum.

Children get a hands-on learning experience, enriching their understanding of the Viking Age. Photo: Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse

Memories that last

"The theory is that if a memory is created using a number of senses, there will be more routes to recall that memory and the learning," explains Kate. "We know how a smell or a song can throw us into memory, and we aim to do this with our school sessions." 

"We want to inspire and excite the children so they want to share and communicate their experiences when they go back to school. The teachers can then use this enthusiasm to generate classroom activities through storytelling, creative writing, DT, art, and STEM subjects."

Though the objects are primarily made available to pupils during school visits to the museum, the team is also planning some events where they could introduce them to a broader audience. 

As Kate puts it, most of us struggle to recall the lessons we learned in school, "but most people remember a school trip to a museum, particularly when it has stimulated all the senses."

Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse, 162 London Road, Northwich, Cheshire CW9 8AB, UK.

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